[This is a continuation of the discussion of why women are not eligible to be ordained into the Thai Buddhist priesthood. For the first and second essays in this series see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/monks-manage-pii andwww.kendobson.asia/blog/men-monks-only ]
Why are there no women in the Thai Sangha, the ordained Buddhist priesthood in Thailand? Is there a way out of this inequality?
Gender issues in our time are based on a shift in faith that is a thousand years older than any religion now arguing about these matters. What’s more, I contend that this is not news and therefore the energy to sustain these very long-term disparities is disguised as something it is not. It is commonly understood that somehow in the “ancient-classical” period a major paradigm shift took place. Men took total control. Women were marginalized. New religious narratives emerged that ratified this. Feminist and human rights discussions have focused on the usurpation of power by men, concluding that the way to address this is to simply recognize the facts and open doors for women. This approach has met with limited success.
Theravada Buddhism is the predominant Thai form of Buddhism. Women are not permitted into the Sangha, and never have been. Thai Buddhist legends recognize that women were ordained by the Lord Buddha, himself, but that tradition lapsed and is impossible to reinstate because there are no women monks to form the required council to do the ordination. To be ordained women need to be reborn as men. The need for women on the council is a bit more cantankerous. Some modern Thai scholars hold that an all-male council could decide to ordain women. But the highest council in Thai Buddhism has consistently said no, citing one authority or another. They appear to disagree about everything except the conclusion, “no”.
I think what we have here is another case of “tying up a pile of rice with a rope.” The story goes that a neighbor asked to borrow a rope. “No,” the owner said, “I need it to tie up my pile of rice.” “But you can’t tie up a pile of rice with a rope,” the neighbor protested. The owner of the rope said, “Any excuse is good if you don’t want to loan your rope.”
If I am right, no amount of debate will resolve this. In Thai Buddhism scripture is the highest authority. An international council right here in Chiang Mai in 1477 CE determined the present form of the canon of scripture, meeting in Wat Jet Yod (Temple of Seven Peaks) which was built for that purpose. Their product was the Tripitaka, a ponderous set of writings roughly the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. There was agreement about the basics of Buddhist Dharma (the teaching and doctrine of Buddhism), but wide latitude in interpretation. By the 1800s there was need to bring some uniformity to the way things were done, and King Mongkut, Rama IV, was just the man to do it. He was a scholar, had been an ordained monk for forty years and he was the King when Siam was still an absolute monarchy. Under his management the Supreme Council worked out the regulations for all Buddhism in Siam. This then eventually became law. In effect it designated who had authority to make decisions of all types. So Dharma is supreme, the Tripitaca explicates Dharma, and the Sangha expounds the Tripitaca. It’s the law. Women will not be ordained until the Sangha says so.
But why won’t they say so? Why is access to meritorious rank only open to men?
Here in our villages there are two clues. The first is the bot or ordination hall of major monasteries. This is a temple building that usually is a smaller model of the large assembly hall (vihara, weehan) all temples normally have. But women are forbidden entrance to the bot. The hall is designated by 3 sema stones along each side, one at the rear of the hall, and one in front. A ninth stone is located under the center of the floor inside. That is the foundation stone that not only symbolically holds up the building but also connects it to the heart of the earth. The function of that central stone is the same as the city pillars in most towns. Women are not permitted inside city pillar shrines either.
Menstrual blood is the reason. Is it a mere excuse, like the case of tying up a pile of rice?
At present, we are confronted with rigid stubbornness on the part of the male Buddhist authorities to allow women into the priesthood, and even to allow them to cross the threshold into the ordination hall. As the hall is being constructed they can enter. I have been present on the eve of the dedication of an ordination hall and women were inside having a last look around. Most of what they saw was a gaping hole in the floor with a wooden scaffold above it holding a stone ball the size of a basketball covered with gold foil. On the following day at the auspicious hour that ball was cut loose and allowed to drop into the hole, while the other eight sema stones also were deposited into holes surrounding the building. Then the women departed. Someone told me that the women had to leave before the balls were cut, but I have seen HRH Princess Somsaowalee cut the central stone at a bot. In fact, men also depart and the final act of consecration is performed by ordained monks alone. In due time, lingam stones mark the location of the buried stones surrounding the bot. So, something happens after those stones have been buried that exiles women from ordination chapels. If we can find that, by extension, we will know what is going on to prevent women from leadership in Buddhism.
As a matter of fact, the “thing that happens” is that as the dedication service concludes, a connection is made between that sacred site and the macrocosm. The ordination hall becomes an axial rod between the primordial regions of the universe, and ordained people gain access to supernatural power. Thai priests/monks thereby are dually ordained. It can be inferred, then, that one reason women cannot be ordained is that allowing women into the ordination hall runs the risk of negating the connection to the supernatural that the hall has been built to provide.
Can monks be ordained elsewhere? Ah, that is a point to consider. Why not just exclude this occult business from those who do not want to be involved with it?
That brings us to the second clue as to why women are presently excluded from certain aspects and roles of Thai Buddhism. It has to do with what the Buddhist priests actually do. On the one hand they study and expound Dharma. Although the Tripitaka is now an established canon and is used to understand and interpret Buddhism, it does not have quite the same role as scriptures do in religions which are built upon a holy book. In the people’s minds monks are the highest authority on all things religious. The Tripataka is what scholarly monks refer to as their highest authority. Most people, as well as most monks, have no more access to a set of the Tripataka than medieval monks in Europe had to the Bible. So the assumption must be insisted upon that there is at least an indirect link between what a monk says and what the Buddha taught. Most priests do not write their own sermons. It is assumed that the writers of the sermon texts are dependable conduits of Buddhist Dharma. The link between the preacher seated before a congregation and the Lord Buddha is visible when monks preach from traditional texts held reverently in their hands.
Still, if someone wants to argue a point of doctrine, references to passages in the Tripitaka carry a lot of weight, but Dharma is interpreted by priests who are prepared and authorized to do so. The authorization they need comes in two ways, through ordination and appointment by the Sangha, and by common acclaim of the people who flock to certain leading monks and who select them to chant at important events. The enunciations of these leaders carry as much weight as a quote from the Tripitaka. In fact, the presence and chanting of priests can be called “charismatic” in its effect. It is the event that is efficacious rather than the content. Some forms of chanting are hardly understood by anybody in the audience, and these tend to be accorded greater regard. On the whole, if a monk preaches in the vernacular, the audience pays less attention and considers the chanting to be less impressive. Nevertheless, some popular monks are well known for their messages. They tend to have highly developed rhetorical skills, often an excellent sense of humor, and always a traditional message about the ethical impact of Dharma. Can women do this? They can and they do. There are radio programs on which women expound Dharma and do it well.
On the other hand some equally popular monks are renowned, not for their chanting and interpretations of Dharma, but for what else they do. In general, they are specialists and practitioners of arcane arts: manufacture of amulets, conduct of rites to control the effects of nature and the supernatural, production of herbal medicines and much more. It is noteworthy that monks are not the only ones who can do these things, but if a monk is famous for effectively doing one of these things he is likely to be preferred to lay practitioners or shaman. There are some roles, however, that only lay people can undertake, such as “spirit dances” and certain prophetic incantations. Women and especiallykathoey (the “third sex” in Thai culture) can take some of these roles and participate fully. It seems that if practices of shamanism are undertaken by monks, women are prevented from performing them, but those which monks cannot do are open for women.
There is an unresolved debate in Buddhism about how far the Buddha meant his followers to go in abrogating asceticism as well as Brahmin ritual influences in everyday affairs. One school of thought is that the Buddha discovered a Way to Enlightenment that eliminated the need for both extreme asceticism and esoteric ritualism. Another school of thought insists that the Buddha’s Way was an alternative for the spiritually elite; he assumed that daily life would continue for the majority, as it would need to do if the Sangha (monastic priesthood) was to be sustained, and that Brahmins would continue to conduct the rituals that get people through mundane life passages. Did the Buddha mean for his monks to take over the conduct of Brahmin rites? That is what has happened to a large extent, especially in Theravada practice. In Thailand they have taken charge of the supernaturalist interpretations of those rites as well. However, it is helpful and important to notice that some Buddhist monks have nothing to do with some aspects of Buddhism. Some never preach. Others do not distribute amulets or medals. Many would decline from teaching certain forms of meditation. In practice, monks exercise a wide range of options.
Not surprisingly, some Buddhist scholars have argued for reforms of Thai Buddhism to move away from all supernatural, superstitious, occult practices. The late Ven. Buddhadasa Bikkhu was the most famous modern spokesman for this reform movement, with current leaders like Sulak Sivaraksa trying to sustain the reform movement as well as to steer Thai Buddhism toward social responsibility and involvement. Notice that for Thai Buddhist reformers the principle is that occult practices are “superstitions”, so they can and should be dispensed with. This would seem to leave the way open for women to be ordained, since nothing monks would do would then involve a taboo regarding menstrual blood. The main thing standing in the way of making this decision is the fact that monks’ dual ordination and the holistic nature of popular Buddhism is not open to discussion.
It seems that the large majority of Thai people neither understand what is at stake nor wish to have Buddhism divested of its supernaturalism. Whereas in royal ceremonies Buddhists and Brahmins have specified roles, in village culture the conduct of supernatural rites is undertaken sometimes by monks and at other times by lay practitioners who were formerly monks. One sort depends on gifts at composing certain kinds of poetry, whereas another (rarer) practice involves music for which even the production of the musical instruments must be strictly controlled and ritualized. Two things are significant in this observation: first, that the role of Brahmins has been at least to some extent taken on by monks and former monks; second, that the “arts” are involved in the rites and ceremonies, and the arts are traditionally closely tied to the supernatural. In Thai culture the arts are music, dance, drama, healing, martial and plastic (sculpture and painting). All arts typically involve initiation rites and veneration of a line of teachers of the arts back to a pre-Buddhist progenitor. Every explanation I have ever read about these rites says that they are conducted to insure continuity of the inspiration and any failure to observe these venerations risks severing the connection to the source, which would result in the art being without effect.
So it may come down to this: is there an unbreakable connection between Buddhist priests’ performance of solemn rites involving pii and their role as teachers of Dharma, and is there an ironclad prohibition of women performing those solemn rites? (For that matter, why couldn’t women be ordained, as the Ven. Dhammananda was and a growing number of women following her have been, without engaging in occult, if that is so disturbing?) Certain practices can be performed by women. They can be spirit mediums, deal in amulets, concoct herbal medicine, do effective massage, and much more. There is evidence that before Buddhism came along with the establishment of the Dvaravati city-state confederation, women were doing a whole range of things they presumably cannot now do. It is entirely a cultural and political matter that the Great Mother, and in effect all mothers, are subjected to male domination for yet a little while. Such immense power held so tenuously cannot be contained in the hands of the few forever.
This is what I have concluded from several years of looking at this: (1) There is no reason based on Buddhist scripture to contend the Lord Buddha did not believe women could be enlightened as could men. (2) There is no inherent bond between Buddhism and supernaturalism; they are separate, overlapping realms of faith. (3) There is no reason to believe women cannot be as effective as men in expounding the teachings of the Lord Buddha. (4) The decision against ordination of women is not doctrinal at all, it is cultural. (5) The solution to the issue of ordination of women is to openly declare that performance of arcane rites is an optional aspect of being a monk, which is already what is practiced, and then let the people decide who they will call upon to do what.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.